I’ll admit to being Machiavellian in choosing to read the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I knew nothing about it apart from the title, that Maggie Smith once did a fine job of starring in the film adaptation (which I haven’t seen) and that it has found its way onto many ‘must read’ lists. So I chose the book knowing that I could tick it off one of my many reading lists and, because it was short, I thought I could read it quickly to bump up my tally for the year.
More’s the fool me, because The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie took me all of a week to read despite only clocking in at 150 or so pages. Although the premise is simple, the narrative is dense. The story revolves around a group of school-girls, known in their community as the ‘Brodie-set’ having been taught by Miss Jean in their youth. The novel follows them (although not in a linear manner) from their days as Brodie’s pupils to their adulthood. Miss Brodie has an un-orthadox manner of teaching and her young students are educated in things ranging from Art to Fascism but have little regard for the standard curriculum. Through the eyes of these young girls we follow Brodie’s path as she devotes her life to teaching, struggles in her love life and battles against the school board who frequently rally against her methods.
The joys of this novel lie not so much in its plot but its theme and style. The story speaks of wasted opportunity and unrealised potential. Although Brodie’s methods promise that the girls will be the ‘creme de la creme’, as they grow up we understand them as being relatively standard women of the day. Spark reduces her characters to a single note where each girl is ‘known’ for something, which gives a sense that, for all Brodie’s methods, these ladies fall back to the average, like most of us do. Further, we learn, through the girls, that Brodie in committing her ‘prime’ to the school, fails in series of love affairs. Again it seems like Spark is pointing to lost potential. Miss Brodie is eccentric to be sure, but that eccentricity never fully translates into something good and may even rob her of an alternative life that she may (or may not – we never really know) crave.
Stylistically, the story lies under a fog. While the tale revolves in at and around Miss Brodie, we only know of her through the testimony and gossip of the girls. Thus we have the classic unreliable narrator problem. We are invited to know of Miss Brodie but never get to know her.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was the first novel I’ve read by Muriel Spark but I’m not sure I would be itching to read more of her work on the basis of this. I see why the book is a classic. For modern writers who like to ‘write big’ this novel is a great example of the importance of brevity. The novel is beautifully crafted and it is easy to see why it comes highly recommended. That said, I found myself reading the book more for my education than for entertainment and I suppose I would caution anyone considering it to adjust their expectations – read it as an important addition to the canon rather than as a ‘rip-roaring’ read.